Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to Bill C-302.
At the outset, I want to congratulate the member for his perseverance in bringing forward this bill. A lot of work goes into a private member's bill. He has gone to considerable lengths and efforts to get the bill this far.
I recognize there is some disagreement between the supporters of the bill and the Conservatives, but that is to be expected in a House such as this. However, I encourage him. We in the NDP certainly support the bill. We are strongly behind it.
I also want to congratulate the member for Thunder Bay—Rainy River and the member for Vancouver Kingsway who made excellent presentations on this bill. I have read most, if not all, of the other speeches on this bill in Hansard.
This bill is an act to recognize the injustice that was done to persons of Italian origin through their enemy alien designation and internment during the second world war, and to provide for restitution and promote education on Italian Canadian history. As I indicated before, my party is universally in support of the member's efforts in this regard.
On September 3, 1939, the Government of Canada issued regulations that empowered the minister of justice with the full authority to act as he chose to destroy any subversion during the time of war. This allowed him to detain without trial any person and created a class of aliens who were not foreign nationals but were Canadian citizens.
On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on Canada. That very evening, Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced that he had ordered the internment of hundreds of Italian Canadians identified by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as enemy aliens. That order was applied to Italians who became British subjects after September 1, 1922.
The government also established a judicial mechanism to administer internment proceedings. It passed an order in council which ensured the registration of all people of Italian birth. Furthermore, the office of the custodian of alien property was authorized to confiscate the property of enemy aliens.
Like the internment of Japanese Canadians, Ukrainian Canadians, German Canadians and others, the forced registration and internment of Italian Canadians is a sad chapter in our history. In some respects it is a forgotten chapter because people my age and younger only learned of this history many years after the fact. It is very appropriate that legislatures across the country have dealt with these issues over the last few years. It is certainly better late than not at all.
The RCMP rounded up approximately 700 Italian Canadians. Often, parents were separated from their children and husbands from their families. There were 17,000 people designated as enemy aliens for no other reason than their birth. There was no reason to suspect that those interned posed any threat to Canada or Canadians. In fact, many of them were first world war veterans who had fought for their adopted country. That is a very hard fact to come to grips with and swallow, that someone who had served this country during the first world war, some 20 years later would be part of a group that was interned. It is very hard to get one's mind around that.
Presumably there were records. We have dealt with that. Everyone knew from the records who was who. It is hard to think that the RCMP would just simply take somebody who had been in this country for 20-plus years, who had served in the first world war and, after exemplary service and an exemplary work record, would round him up and take him away. It was not uncommon for men in uniform to come back home only to find that family members had been interned. I cannot think of a worse situation than that.
The roundup of Italian Canadians was virtually completed in October 1940 and, as we all know, most of them were sent to Camp Petawawa situated in the Ottawa River Valley. It is difficult to establish how many Italian Canadians were interned, although estimates range from 600 to 700. I read a lot of very good information on Italian community websites, which explain the history of what happened during that period.
Although the majority of those interned were from areas with the highest concentrations of Italian Canadians at the time, Montreal, Toronto and other centres in Ontario, there are also documented cases in western Canada.
The internment was brutal. Families could not visit or write interned people for the first year. They had to go a whole year without knowing where their family was. Italian Canadians were penalized financially. A spontaneous boycott of Italian businesses, whipped up by the prejudice of the times, took place throughout Canada. Provincial governments ordered municipalities to terminate relief payments to non-naturalized Italians. Travel restrictions were imposed on Italian Canadians and their ability to occupy certain jobs was prohibited.
We were half a world away from where the war was at. For Italy to be a threat to the North American continent at that time I would think would be absolutely non-existent. Why there would be so much concern about interning people on such a big scale in a vast country like this does not make any sense, certainly not in the context of the times. However, those were different times and people obviously had different attitudes.
Italian Canadians were forced to report on a monthly basis to the RCMP. Activities, such as teaching the Italian language and meetings of the Roma Society, were declared illegal. As a matter of fact, the previous Bloc speaker indicated how the Italian language could not be spoken in churches in Quebec and that French had to be used.
Internment was up to three years and the average interned person was held for almost 16 months. To put some feelings on this, these are not just numbers we are talking about. Some of the people interned were doctors, lawyers, carpenters, bakers, contractors and priests. I believe a doctor from Sudbury was interned at the time.
It was just as bad for families because these actions added to their psychological scars. They suffered constant harassment and ridicule from neighbours and co-workers and the fearmongering being perpetuated by elected officials of the day.
The federal government went even further. It froze bank accounts. It forced Italian Canadian families to subsist on $12 a month. Many Italian families were forced to sell their homes, businesses and valuable assets.
If we were to face something like that right now, I can imagine what our overwhelming reaction would be. We would find this hard to believe.
The Liberals, Conservatives and NDP members can be cats and dogs in this House some days, but without getting into a political fight, the fact is that members should note that it was New Democrats under the CCF who stood alone for decades against internment and against the War Measures Act and in favour of civil liberties. The forefathers of our party stood up against the erosion of civil liberties at a time when the Liberal Party was in power and was doing things like this. We have a very pristine history and a good position when it comes to issues like this.